The Natural History Museum

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Some background to put the following interview with artist and organizer Beka Economopoulos in context:

The Paris COP21 climate negotiations completed on December 12 as a success, a failure, or both, depending on one’s criteria. For the American public, this puts the ball squarely back in our court – because our per capita emissions, while having leveled off (at about 17 tons), are still more than double China’s (6.6 tons) and ten times that of India (1.6 tons), and most of the work of curbing emissions will fall to our three countries. Over the next three or four years, we need to show India in particular that we can accomplish major cuts in our per capita emissions, or there will be little reason for them to take action on our behalf or sacrifice their economy for the world overall.

The more ambitious language in the Paris talks, the goal of the 1.5°C limit, came from a group led by small island nations that will disappear if sea levels rise beyond two meters. Their goal also serves New York City well, because our city has about 400,000 people living in the 100 year flood plain, in homes that are equally vulnerable to the sea.

1.5°C as a target gives us an excuse to talk about what that means. Justin Gillis of the New York Times has an excellent brief explainer. And the best single presentation we’ve seen comes from energy engineer Saul Griffith in the video above. It’s worth watching through to get a complete understanding of the scope and timetable of our challenge. [Updated here.]

Can we live more efficiently? We know for sure we can, because people already do, and people in the US did even in earlier generations; parents, grandparents. But will anyone agree to? And we have to agree, or else…why would India agree? That’s the real negotiation.

A lot of things Americans take for granted would be changed to achieve 2°C, or push further for 1.5°C, and Griffith uses examples from his own life as he decarbonizes his lifestyle ahead of us. The changes are all doable, he’s already doing them. Air travel might be once a year, or once every two years, or less. New cars will be electric. Wind turbines and pumped storage systems would need to be built everywhere possible, but the net available energy will be lower. If you poke around on this massive device, you can see some of the relationships. Here’s a similar but more fun toy for the energy side, setting the UK up for a 2°C future.

Our society as a whole has to decide – or at least enough of us – that we do want a solution, and that we will agree to participate in it. How can a transformation of this scale ripple across our society at a rate that is relevant to a solution? Every cultural institution needs to become a reality transmitter.

Which leads us to the forward-thinking work of Beka Economopoulos and her colleagues: showing that a small group of determined activists can get enormous institutions to confront reality, when their short term interest (financial support tied to fossil fuels) is directly at odds with their long term interest (an intact society). For example, to understand the true stakes facing New York’s priceless set of museums, see a map of New York City under a 4°C scenario, conditions that would cause the city itself to shut down. The front end of that kind of change is already underway in Miami, as reported by the New Yorker.

Economopoulos interviewed here by Angie Koo.

How did you get involved in the fossil fuel divestment movement?

I’m with a collective, Not An Alternative, that works in the intersection of art, activism, and theory, or pedagogy, and we’ve been in operation for the last 11 years or so. We launched our first long term, ongoing project last year called The Natural History Museum.

We started a new museum in order to get inside the museum sector, to transform it from within. Our museum does everything traditional natural history museums do. We do exhibitions, expeditions, educational workshops, and public programming, but we make a point to highlight the socio-political forces that shape nature that are left out of traditional natural history museums.

This project knits together the various backgrounds, skills, and interests of the members of our collective. I come out of activism and organizing, specifically with the environmental movement over the last 20 years. My husband comes from an art and exhibit design background. Another co-founder of our collective has worked in our country’s largest natural history and science museum. We were interested in modeling the museum of the future, one that has no ties to fossil fuel, one that champions bold climate action and equips its visitors with a full range of stories and tools that they need to understand the rapidly changing world and shape it for the common good.

Were there any museums that had already divested or was The Natural History Museum the first to take that stand?

Not that we are aware of. It’s entirely possible that a museum divested and didn’t make an announcement of it.

Yet – the divestment movement is a global movement that is intended not to be a decision behind closed doors, but rather a proclamation that the fossil fuel industry is jeopardizing the future of life on this planet and that in particular, they are spreading climate science disinformation and lobbying to block action on climate change.

[perfectpullquote align=”right” cite=”” link=”” color=”” class=”” size=””]We should not have science deniers in leadership positions at science museums.[/perfectpullquote]

So, if you’re going to divest, you should make an announcement and be counted as among the other institutions that are doing so to contribute to this global movement.

In particular, the divestment movement this time last year announced $50 billion in pledges in funds divested from the fossil fuel industry.

Their goal was to triple that by this time this year – and they have increased it 150-fold: $2.6 trillion dollars have been pledged in divestment. It is probably the quickest growing movement we’ve seen to date. Universities, municipalities, foundations, philanthropies, and faith-based institutions have been divesting, but it only makes sense for science and history museums to do the same and to really lead the way in the museum sector because this has everything to do with their missions.

So what has the general response from museums been when they are confronted with the call to divest from fossil fuels? Has it been positive?

I want to clarify that we’re not just calling on these museums to divest their financial holdings in the fossil fuel industry, we’re asking them to refuse fossil fuel funding, to cancel any fossil fuel industry sponsorships, and if you’re a science museum, to kick climate deniers off your board. We should not have science deniers in leadership positions at science museums.

For that reason, this spring we teamed up with 150 of the world’s top scientists and Nobel Laureates to release a letter calling on science and natural history museums to cut all ties to fossil fuels. In tandem with that, we launched a petition calling on the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History and the American Museum of Natural History, here in New York, to kick David Koch off their boards. Koch is one of the Koch brothers, the owners of Koch Industries, the second largest privately held fossil fuel company in the world. He has spent $79 million over the last two decades funding climate science disinformation campaigns, and openly denies the scientific evidence himself. So there is a clear contradiction between the politics of their patron and board member and the mission and values of the institutions. [David Koch is also the wealthiest New Yorker, and 6th wealthiest individual in the world. Perspectives on the Koch influence on US action on climate change here, here and here.]

Inside Climate News has covered the response we’ve been getting from the museum sector. There’s a couple of things to note:

Some institutions have responded very positively and have implemented gift policies refusing fossil fuel funding and pledged to divest. We’ve seen that from the California Academy of Sciences in San Francisco, from the Phipps Conservatory and Botanical Gardens in Pittsburgh, and from the Australian Academy of Science. Just last week, the London Science Museum dropped Shell as a sponsor and also we just learned this weekend that The Field Museum in Chicago is divesting. So yes, great response in many ways.

A lot of institutions, however, push back and say two things:

[perfectpullquote align=”left” cite=”” link=”” color=”” class=”” size=””]You can’t be neutral on a moving train, and history is a moving train.[/perfectpullquote]

One, there’s a firewall between funders and donors or board members and programming and curation. They have no influence over it. But we have several board members who are former science and natural history museum directors who have said there is still influence.

Case in point, James Powell is the former director and president of the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County and The Franklin Institute Science Museum in Philadelphia; he said, “Listen, I’ve been on the other side of the table. Your multi-million donor doesn’t have to be in a room to influence your decision when you know their politics and you don’t want to piss them off. That has an impact.”

Another one of our board members is a Nobel Laureate scientist, Eric Chivian, and he said, “Those strings need not be visible to be attached. It’s the threat of self-censorship more so than the threat of censorship that we need to be concerned about.”

The second point we’re hearing from these museums is, “Well, we can’t divest; we can’t do what you’re asking us to do because we’re neutral.” It’s this issue of neutrality, or in the museum sector it’s written about as “authoritative neutrality,” that becomes this sort of guiding principle and it’s delusional. Our position is that there is no such thing as neutrality. There is always a curatorial point of view and whatever default position you deem to be objective is actually informed by the status quo, by the socio-political moment we find ourselves in. There is a politic to it already.

Even if they refuse to acknowledge it.

Exactly. So it’s if you make that implicit or explicit.

Historian Howard Zinn said, “You can’t be neutral on a moving train.” History is a moving train; it’s heading in a direction. Right now it is heading towards environmental collapse. So simply by standing still and doing nothing, we are complicit. Neutrality does not serve us in the midst of a climate crisis. The Code of Ethics for Museums,” says that it is incumbent on museums to preserve the rich and diverse world we’ve inherited for posterity, to act not only legally, but ethically, and to take very seriously any threat to our institution’s integrity.

When our institutions cozy up to the world’s biggest polluters, take funding from them, and invest in them, we’re forced to question whose interests are served and it undermines the integrity they have gained through years of dedicated service. For that reason, we are inviting these museums to align with their missions and to reevaluate their role in times of profound environmental change.

The Natural History Museum traveling exhibit comments on the sponsorship behind AMNH (Ph via Natural History Museum)
Do museums have an ethical responsibility to their audience? The Natural History Museum’s new exhibit confronts the sponsorship behind the American Museum of Natural History in New York. (Photo via Natural History Museum)

What will you be doing in Paris and what do you hope to accomplish?

We, as an art collective, were inspired to start this museum, which by the way is not a joke. It is an actual museum. It’s registered with The American Alliance of Museums. We’ve been exhibiting and presenting on panels at all the world’s various museum conventions, and we just spoke to hundreds of museum directors at the International Council of Museums leadership conference. We’ve been very much working within the sector and developing exhibitions, and research, and such. But it was initiated by an art collective and we are stewarding the museum.

We did it because we were inspired by what peers in the UK were doing. There’s a network of artists over last several years that call themselves “Liberate Tate”. They have been calling on the Tate museums to drop BP as a sponsor and they are using the vocabulary of contemporary artlike performance art, oil paint, and suchthe vocabulary of the institution that they’re intervening upon. There’s a collective of theater professionals called “BP or Not BP” that has been calling on the Royal Shakespeare Company to drop BP as a sponsor and they use guerilla theater to do that. So there are all these groups around the world that are using the vocabulary of the institutions they’re intervening upon.

[perfectpullquote align=”left” cite=”” link=”” color=”” class=”” size=””]Museums are leaders, and we’re asking them to demonstrate their leadership.[/perfectpullquote]

This borrows from this tradition in art called “institutional critique.” A rapidly growing number of groups around the world are calling on our cultural institutions to cut ties to fossil fuels.

So, we got funding to bring folks together from 8 or 9 countries—Norway, UK, Ireland, France, Australia, Brazil, US, Canada—to have our first face-to-face. We are going to have a two-day retreat to share lessons learned and to do some strategy and planning. We’re doing a couple of public events, panel discussions and workshops, and then we’re doing a joint performative intervention at the Louvre.

[Our interview took place prior to the event in Paris; see images from the Louvre protest here and here. Top image in this post by Reuters.]

We are calling on the Louvre to cancel their sponsorships with Total and Eni, two of the six super-major super oil companies in the world. Total is the French State oil company; Eni is the Italian State oil company. By the way, Shell Oil just pulled out of Arctic. Everyone celebrated that, but Eni is moving in to take Shell’s place with much more expensive drilling rigs.

[perfectpullquote align=”full” cite=”” link=”” color=”” class=”” size=””]Are we shutting our borders to climate refugees, or are we really doing some soul searching about what it means to be human in this context?[/perfectpullquote]

This is a growing international cultural movement, and we are one manifestation of it. We were seeing what our peers around the world were doing and we really wanted to kick that off in New York and transform the museum sector here. We’re doing this not to target museums, but because we love museums. We see them as leaders and we’re asking them to demonstrate their leadership.

There are more museums [and historical sites] than Starbucks and McDonald’s combined in the United States alone.

Museums see more visitors annually than the entire number of people that go to sporting events and theme parks combined. They’ve got millions of visitors. They have incredibly robust educational programs for toddlers on up to adults to seniors. Many museums confer academic degrees; they have degree programs; you can get your PhD from American Museum of Natural History. They’re incredibly powerful and salient spaces. We would like to see them reevaluate their roles and turn into hubs for contemplation, reflection, education, and yes, collective action.

That’s great and also answers my question about why we want institutions like museums to divest. They play such major roles in society that having them be leaders in this movement is so important.

Yes. And there is a precedent. Over the course of the past couple decades, zoos, aquariums, and botanical gardens really steered their ships to embrace a conservation message, infusing all their exhibits and programming with conservation messages. They engage in conservation campaigns in the field, and they provide on-ramps for their visitors and members to take action on conservation campaigns. We think it’s about time that science and natural history museums do the same for climate change.

What do you see is the role of art in climate change activism and why is it important that art has this voice in this movement?

There are many ways in which art can advance climate change activism. One, is raising visibility and educating people. Two, is art is a medium that is so great at evoking emotion and shepherding people through emotion. Art can help to frame understanding. It can help to reveal exclusions, something we’re very concerned with, with this project.

We’re looking at what stories and voices are included in natural history museums and what are excluded, and why are they excluded. Does it have anything to do with corporate sponsors? Does it have anything to do with work XYZ? We don’t have the luxury of time with climate change.

Art can help bring urgency and engage a much broader swath of the public than straight activism or policy work.

The other thing is, I think art asks us what it means to be human and what it means to be human in the time of the Anthropocene, in the time of the climate crisis. The changes are already here, so while we can work to stem the course of climate change, we also have to ask what our response to it look like. Are we just stepping on each other’s heads scrambling to get on the life raft, or are we reaching out hands out pulling up our brothers and sisters? Are we shutting our borders to climate refugees, or are we really doing some soul searching about what it means to be human in this context? Is our response militaristic or humanitarian? I think art is really great at raising those questions and presenting solutions.

And with Paris showcasing so much public art and performative art related to climate change throughout the city as COP21 is happening, it’s great to see how art is adding to the narrative. I didn’t think something of that scale would have been possible.

I just came back from the Creative Time Summit this weekend which was at the Boys and Girls High School in Bed-Stuy. It was incredibly powerful and Boots Riley gave the keynote. He’s the rapper, hip-hop artist from The Coup. He said that meaningful art, radical art, challenges capitalism. He’s going straight to the root and that’s something I think that we can do as artists. We have a little bit more license than others to say things that are controversial, that need to be said, to really interrogate the roots of problems, not just the surface solution. We don’t just decorate protests or make things pretty. We’re really about questioning paradigms that we find ourselves in. Historically, art has always played that role and made people a little uncomfortable sometimes, but in that process, shake things up and make space for meaningful transformation.


More thoughts on Paris and the future from political scientist David Victor (a proponent of the successful approach used for diplomacy at COP21), and from climate scientist Ken Caldeira.


A correction to this piece: Saul Griffith was identified as a ‘Google energy engineer;’ he led development of Makani Power (wind energy) with funding from Google X and ARPA-E. Griffith has moved on to new projects at his company Other Lab, including lightweight heliostats for efficient solar power systems. Profile of Saul Griffith in the New Yorker. The slides that accompany the video at top are available here.

UPDATED 1/21/16: We’re happy to report that the Natural History Museum’s campaign to remove David Koch from the board of the American Museum of Natural History in New York has successfully concluded: Koch stepped down as reported in an announcement reported in the NYT on 1/20/16. Other coverage: Guardian; Grist; Hyperallergic; New York Magazine.

Saul Griffith has updated his talk on energy and infrastructure. His current thoughts, recorded at the Long Now Foundation in September, are a brilliant and comprehensive look at what we need to do to solve climate change.